A fetus is scheduled to testify in front of the Ohio legislature. I kid you not. Though I suppose I should rephrase that to say that an “unborn human individual” is scheduled to testify as that is the term that the bill, originally introduced by Representative Lynn Wachtman, prefers. The legislation, nicknamed the “Heartbeat Bill,” is being piloted in Ohio by a group called Faith 2 Action and seeks to make illegal all abortions that take place after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. It defines “unborn human individual” as “an individual organism of the species homo sapiens from fertilization until live birth.” And one of these organisms is apparently going to address the Ohio House of Representatives.
How exactly its handlers are going to arrange this is not quite clear, though it appears that a woman who is nine weeks pregnant is going to have an ultrasound on the spot. ( It seems worth noting that at nine weeks fetuses tend to be too small to be detected by the classic over-the-belly ultrasounds of TV and movies, so in order for the audience to see this “witness,” it will be necessary to use an intra-vaginal probe.) It seems obvious to me that the witness, described by Faith 2 Action as “the youngest witness to ever come before the House Health Committee,” will not actually be speaking. While the pregnant woman may have something to say, my guess is that the bill’s supporters are hoping that a picture really is worth a thousand words.
It’s not the first time that those opposed to abortion have tried to use the images of ultrasounds to manipulate. Crisis pregnancy centers have been using these early pictures for years to sway women facing unintended pregnancies on the theory that once they see a heartbeat, they won’t be able to choose abortion. Last year, the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill requiring pregnant women to have an ultrasound before they could opt to terminate a pregnancy. It’s a strategy that makes sense; these are powerful images especially when combined with the unmistakable swooshing sound of a fetal heartbeat. I’m guessing I’m not the only person to tear up upon seeing and hearing this for the first time. For women who want to be pregnant and have a baby, these are reassuring signs that everything is okay (at least for now). For women who don’t, they may very well be upsetting or confusing. It remains to be seen how they will impact lawmakers.
Clearly, the promoters of this bill hope that the vaguely human images on the screen will convince lawmakers that this organism in its earliest stages of development is, in fact, a person. Faith 2 Action makes this clear in its new music video supporting the bill. Set to the tune of “99 Red Balloons,” the video intersperses in-utero images of fetuses with those of adorable dancing babies and includes lyrics such as “some time ago, we don’t know why, a court ruled to make babies cry. Now we can stop their decree and protect children like me.” It continues: “when they hear our hearts they’ll care, send a message someone’s in there.”
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As a society, we often attribute grown up thoughts and feelings to babies. It can be funny like that talking, milk-swigging baby in the ads for the on-line trading service. I personally cringe when I get thank you notes for baby gifts written in the first person (the three-week old did not think my choice of flato-frog was especially cute or generous, it’s not yet capable of that kind of thinking) but judging by how many of these I get, lots of people think it’s really cute to speak for their baby. This latest legislative tug at our heart strings, however, is anything but cute. It’s a ploy for fetal personhood and a direct attack on the protection set up by Roe v. Wade. This proposed law would push the date at which abortion is no longer legal back pretty much to the date the stick turns pink. A heartbeat can be detected as early as five weeks gestational age (and remember the first two of those weeks are counted even though they occurred before ovulation).
What may be most important to remember, however, is that while the detection of a heartbeat is a good sign of a viable pregnancy it is by no means a final indication that the pregnancy will end in the live birth of a healthy baby. The ultrasound that the Committee on Health is about to witness is the first of many that most women have during pregnancy. There’s one at 11 weeks that checks for Downs Syndrome and Trisomy 18 among other possible chromosomal anomalies. Another at 20 weeks looks at the fetal anatomy checking the development of each organ, including the heart, to make sure there are no structural problems that will lead to birth defects.
Unfortunately, for the women of Ohio (and whatever other states are targeted by this group next), this bill makes no exceptions for any anomalies that may be found later in the pregnancy, the only exception is if the pregnancy is life-threatening to the mother. A heartbeat at 9 weeks is no guarantee of a healthy heart or a healthy baby. There are a myriad of conditions and disorders that could cause pain and suffering after birth. It seems paradoxical to me that the authors of this bill would be so focused on the personification of an unborn child that they complete ignore what might happen later. To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term knowing that her child will face a lifetime of pain seems like the ultimate definition of heartlessness to me.